Henry Marchant (1741-1796), of Newport and South Kingstown, was a well-educated intellectual and a protégé of Ezra Stiles. Marchant was born on Martha’s Vineyard, the son of Hexford Marchant, a sea captain. His mother, whose maiden name was Butler, died when he was four, shortly after the family moved to Newport. His father’s second bride was the daughter of Governor Samuel Ward, a marriage that gave young Henry his entré into Newport’s political life. Marchant attended the University of Pennsylvania (then the College of Philadelphia) from 1756 to 1759 and received a master’s degree in 1762. He also read law under the able tutelage of the renowned Judge Edward Trowbridge of Cambridge, Massachusetts, before entering public life as a Ward protégé. In 1765, he married Rebecca Cooke.
An ardent Son of Liberty during the Stamp Act protest of 1765, Marchant served as Rhode Island’s attorney general from 1771 to 1777. When the Revolution erupted, he left vulnerable Newport for his South County estate. Although he represented Newport in the General Assembly during the 1780s, he maintained a spacious, well-kept farm in South Kingstown until his death.
Marchant became a Rhode Island delegate to the Continental Congress (1777-1779) and signed Rhode Island’s assent to the Articles of Confederation on July 9, 1778, along with William Ellery and John Collins. During the Confederation era, he entered the General Assembly, serving from 1784 to 1790 as a vigorous spokesman for the state’s commercial interest. In 1786, Marchant was associated with James Mitchell Varnum in trying the landmark case of Trevett v. Weeden, in which Varnum developed a theory of judicial review of statutes for their constitutionality.
As a strong supporter of the new federal Constitution, in 1790, Marchant introduced a successful bill for the call of a ratifying convention, in which he played a leading role. His efforts on behalf of Federalism were rewarded when George Washington appointed him Rhode Island’s first federal judge, a post he held from July 1790 until his death in August 1796.
In his judicial post, Marchant had an opportunity to implement the theory regarding judicial review that his co-counsel James Varnum had expounded in Trevett v. Weeden. In the 1792 case of Champion and Dickason v. Silas Casey, two successive federal circuit court panels– the first headed by Chief Justice John Jay, the second by Associate Justice James Wilson–declared a Rhode Island legislative resolution designed to shield debtor Casey from his creditors to be a law impairing the obligation of contracts, and therefore contrary to Article I, Section 10 (the Contract Clause), of the Constitution of the United States. As a district judge, Marchant was a member of both three-judge tribunals. The circuit court’s ruling was the first decision by a court declaring a state law invalid for violating the federal Constitution. In West v. Barnes (1791), Marchant was involved in the first case to be appealed from a district court to the U.S. Supreme Court, but only a procedural matter was involved.
In 1792, Marchant received a Doctor of Laws degree from Yale. The honor was twofold: it was conferred by his old mentor, President Ezra Stiles, and it was awarded at a commencement in which Marchant’s son William received his bachelor’s degree.
Judge Henry Marchant was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1999.
For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.